HONG KONG (Reuters) – The Hong Kong government confirmed on Thursday a Reuters report that had told 14 countries to stop accepting a British travel document that many of their young people use to apply for work and holiday visas in Europe. North America and parts of Asia.
In a move seen by some envoys as a diplomatic affront, the government informed foreign consulates in a letter that it no longer considered the British National Overseas (BNO) passport as a valid travel document as of January 31.
The letter, seen by Reuters and confirmed by the Hong Kong government after the story was published, demanded that his Hong Kong passport be used instead.
A diplomatic dispute over the BNO broke out in January after Britain introduced a new visa scheme that offers a path to full citizenship for Hong Kong residents who wish to leave China-ruled territory.
Britain launched the plan after Hong Kong passed a comprehensive national security law last year that critics say is crushing dissent in the former British colony.
“The Hong Kong government has no authority to dictate which passports foreign governments recognize as valid,” a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said when asked about the Reuters report.
“The UK will continue to issue passports for British citizens (abroad) which remain valid travel documents.”
Nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents own or are eligible for the BNO document that was created before Britain returned the city to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hong Kong has also begun to mirror mainland China by failing to recognize dual citizenship, preventing foreign diplomats from visiting locals with detained foreign passports for the first time.
“Most countries are going to ignore this,” said a senior Western diplomat who had seen the letter.
“It’s the Hong Kong government just testing itself … They have no right to tell any state which foreign passports it can recognize.”
Another envoy described the move as “almost belligerent” and said it was not the way that the Hong Kong government, generally aware of the city’s position as an international financial center, has traditionally behaved.
In a statement to Reuters, the Hong Kong government said: “Hong Kong participants under the Vacation and Work Plan should be limited to HKSAR passport holders,” referring to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region document.
“The HKSAR government has formally notified the 14 partner countries that they had signed work holiday agreements with Hong Kong.”
A Hong Kong government website lists Japan, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Ireland and Australia among the countries under the scheme.
Officials from Japan, South Korea, Italy, Sweden and New Zealand confirmed to Reuters that they still recognized the BNO passport for visas. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry added that it had not received the letter, while Hungary said it had and that it had started talks to change the work vacation schedule.
Other nations, including the United States, Finland, and Norway, also offer similar arrangements or student exchanges for Hong Kongers and have accepted BNOs from applicants.
It is not known whether the United States also received the letter, but a State Department spokesperson told Reuters that the BNO was still valid for visa issuance and travel to the United States.
Hong Kong’s actions against the BNO followed an announcement by the UK government that its new visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents.
London said it was fulfilling a historic and moral commitment to the Hong Kong people in the wake of the national security law, which allows suspects in serious cases to be brought across the border and tried in mainland Chinese courts.
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong say the legislation is necessary to bring stability to the city after anti-government protests broke out in 2019.
The UK scheme allows people with BNO status to live, study and work in Britain for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.
Beijing said it would make them second-class citizens, a line propagated by pro-Beijing media commentators in Hong Kong.
Britain returned its former colony to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees that its fundamental freedoms, extensive autonomy and a capitalist way of life would be protected.
Information from Greg Torode and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong, additional information from Krisztina Than in Hungary, Antoni Slodkowski in Tokyo, Hyonhee Shin in South Korea, Praveen Menon in New Zealand, Simon Johnson in Sweden, Guy Faulconbridge in London and Crispian Balmer in Italy; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Hugh Lawson and Alison Williams